Thursday, March 23, 2017

Review: The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity by A. Lee Martinez is an outrageous series adventures and take on the life of a superhero. These adventures, with seemingly no real rhyme or reason or even a sense of logical design through in everything and the kitchen sink – if kitchen sink is an evil cyborg alien musical pirate magician and maybe Yakuza enforcer as well, or just Verity’s grade school teacher. Every ridiculous form of an ‘evil antagonist’ is possible, likely, and quite possibly combined in some improbable match with another to make things more interesting and humorous.

Constance Verity is said superhero – magically endowed at birth to have adventures, she’s good at them and repeatedly saves the world. But…she’s tired, and it becomes almost a buddy adventure when Connie teams up with her (mundane) best-friend for her ‘last adventure’.

But, through all of the wild, over-the-top fun of this book, I couldn’t help but begin viewing it a metaphor for women in modern American society. Perhaps I’m reading into this book too much, but stay with me for bit. The entire universe is literally throwing ‘adventure’ after ‘adventure’ at Constance Verity. She can’t get a cup of coffee without some Yakuza ninja enforcer getting in the way. Or maybe a lizard alien magician. Etc. She never gets a break. The universe is literally a machine designed to make sure she has no close attachments, distractions or anything else in her life that could keep her from doing what it want her to do. She’s exhausted, she’s tired. She just wants a ‘normal’ life and some rest. She was literally cursed to this life this by a sadistic fairy godmother working on behalf of the machine of the universe. Hell, the book opens with us learning that the earth is nothing more than a giant monster that a cult wants to feed Constance Verity to as a sacrifice of appeasement. Yes, the whole world is literally out to eat her.

Then I take a look at my wife, all the shit life has thrown at her lately. All the responsibilities that the machine of society throws on her. All of the asshole men of the world who make it that much harder. The impossible expectations that society forces up on her. To not be too assertive, but not be timid. Too appear how society views is appropriate, but not to be too much. Etc. Etc. How completely beat down she can get by it all. How she so often just wants to give up on all of it. And how she gets out of bed the next morning (after not getting enough sleep since sometime in the ‘90s), and saves the world…again.

Once I captured this vision of The Last Adventure of Constance Verity, I couldn’t see it any other way. It transformed the outrageous, fun adventure into something more – bitter, angry, and intensely sarcastic satire. Which is right where my warped sense of humor lives.

Further, take a moment to think about what the name Constance Verity means.

Constance: Firm of purpose, constant
Verity: Truth

Ouch! And fuck you!

And then my sense of humor kicks in and I laugh for 5 minutes.

Look, I don’t know Martinez and from what I gleaned from a quick bit of reading blog posts and the like, Constance Verity gets its origins more from superhero lore with a good bit of discussion of free will, determinism, and agency in life. Plus you know, fun, humorous, and completely over-the-top adventure. It doesn’t look like Martinez set out to write a dark, satirical feminist manifesto about women ‘having it all’. And I’m sure with a close look the metaphor would probably break down in some troubling ways. It for sure breaks down toward the end of the book – a happy ending plus some nice balance in life achieved? That only exists in Hollywood, self-help books, and mommy blogs. But I simply cannot un-see my view of the book, and I think it’s better for it.

So…most readers will joyously take The Last Adventure of Constance Verity at face value – and more power to them, because it is completely ridiculous in all the best ways. You can feel the fun that Martinez had in writing it, and that fun is contagious. Or maybe you’ll see it through a similar lens as I do and your own sense of humor will allow for a different level of amusement. Or maybe something entirely different. But do read this book, because however you choose to filter it, it’s outrageously fantastic. Oh...and my understanding is that this was not actually Verity's last adventure and more are to come with Constance Verity Saves the World expected in 2018.

Constance Verity Series

The Last Adventure of Constance Verity: Amazon
Constance Verity Saves the World: Amazon

Friday, March 17, 2017

Review: The Collapsing Empire by John Scalzi

John Scalzi begins a new space opera with The Collapsing Empire which is sure to please fans of science fiction. In short it is fun, fast-paced and very accessible. Or…just the book I was needing to read when I read it.

The set-up is a 1000+ year old empire spanning multiple space systems that utilize a sort of parallel energy called the flow to travel between systems where standard travel would never be possible because of the true distance between stars. The empire has been intentionally designed to be interdependent, where no single system will have the ability to survive independently of the others. A few individuals learn that the flow that ‘connects’ systems is about to shift over a period of only a few years, fragmenting humanity into isolated worlds that are doomed to tragic ends.

Along the way we learn that the entire socioeconomic structure of the empire with its monopolistic guilds, strict societal class delineations, and dynastic rule is all just a con job to further enrich the powerful and keep the masses just content enough to not cause too much trouble. In an entrenched, bureaucratic society the will to actually meet an existential threat simply doesn’t exist, and often the will to even acknowledge the possibility that such a threat could be real is lacking.

The Collapsing Empire largely serves as an introduction to the empire, to the physics of Scalzi’s created universe, and to the characters who personalize the story. In this, there is a lot of exposition, but not so much that I was ever bothered by it. Scalzi writes with a brisk pace and a slight irreverence that sets a nicely balanced tone for the book (and presumably the rest of the series). Humor is a big part of it, but it’s more a sense of levity in the face of what’s to come that drives the story. The end result is that things feel more hopeful than anything, making the story fun to read, even in the face disastrous consequence for humanity. And through all the levity, Scalzi still manages to set the stage well for an empire that has stagnated or even regressed, where innovation and flexibility is stifled by tradition and economic interest in the status quo.

It is often said that Scazli writes some of the most accessible science fiction, and I certainly agree. Concepts are not that difficult for someone on the outside of the science fiction world to enjoy, yet they are thought through enough to satisfy (most of) those who are long-time fans. It’s full of high adventure and fun with consequences that matter to story.

For all of this to be successful, it comes down to the people of the story, and Scalzi excels in this. Three main characters are built up as the protagonists of The Collapsing Empire – the newly ascended Emperor, the scientist son of the researcher who discovered the impending collapse of the flow, and familial representative of one of the largest trade guilds. Or the inexperienced political outsider who unexpected ascends to the most powerful role in the galaxy, the naïve young scientist from a remote backwater, and hard-edged and exquisitely foul-mouthed business person who doesn’t take shit from anyone. Even the antagonists of the story are somewhat likable as they are really more self-interested in the extreme than actually evil – cutthroat is perhaps the better term.  

The two most powerful characters in the story are women – and I could probably write an entire review just on Kiva, the foul-mouthed trade representative mentioned above. She steals every single scene she is in, and is only briefly upstaged when we meet her mother. It’s choices like this that help make Scalzi’s writing so accessible, or to put another way, consistent with modern sensibilities as it projects some progressive advances for a far-future civilization (contrasted with the stagnation discussed above). For example, sexual identity and gender are subtly shown to be accepted for what they are and normative for the society. And it really is important when a popular science fiction novel that will likely land itself on multiple best-seller list makes these choices.

Given what I’ve said above, as I close out this review, I really feel the need to emphasize something about this novel: FUN. It is fun to read. Scalzi’s humorous, fast-paced, and slightly irreverent writing takes over this book. I raced through this book, finishing in a just a few days, at a time when I typically take a few weeks to read a book. Call it escapism or just simply fun readying, The Collapsing Empire delivers. But damn it, a cliff-hanger* ending? That’s not cool, because I want the sequel now!

*Cleverly, the cliff-hanger moment is more intellectual and not action-based. Which is a nice bit, though not really solace when I want to read the sequel now.

The Collapsing Empire: Amazon

Friday, March 03, 2017

Mini-Review: The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman

I love books, which really isn’t much of a surprise coming from someone who has a blog about books. So, it’s not much of a stretch for me to love libraries too – after all, they are huge collections of books, and I do have my daydreams of one day having a perfectly snobbish private library for all of my books, but I digress.

So…fantasy stories about libraries…I’m rather predisposed to liking them. The Invisible Library by Genevieve Cogman is just that, a fantasy adventure centered on a great library where librarians have magical powers that they use to cross between worlds to collect books. Yes, there’s a greater struggle across all the worlds between order and chaos, full of fantastical beings that fall on various ends of that spectrum – chaotic fae, orderly dragons, etc. But it all comes back to magical librarian doesn’t it?

The story is pretty basic…a mid-level librarian is assigned a new apprentice and a new task that should be pretty straight-forward. Collect a book in a mildly chaotic world and bring it back. Of course it turns out to be more complicated, of greater importance and way more dangerous than anticipated. There are mixed loyalties, betrayals, mysterious origins and all that jazz. Even a nice hum of romantic tension is thrown about as it mingles with Victorian-style propriety and modern ideas of sexual freedom.

This is Cogman’s debut book, and it sometimes reads as such with a bit too much exposition and pacing difficulties. But then I can forgive pacing issues when librarians are the stars – how many librarians have you known have a tendency to go off on a tangent right in the middle of the search for that precious book?

I quite enjoyed The Invisible Library and heartily recommend it for a bit of bookishly fun diversion. I haven’t yet made it to the sequels, though the beckon from the shelves of my want-to-be library.

The Invisible Library: Amazon
The Masked City: Amazon
The Burning Page: Amazon


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